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Drug maker to partner with online doctors' forum

A year-old online forum where 30,000 doctors swap medical observations has lined up a partnership with Pfizer Inc. - an alliance that runs counter to the site's founding ideal to give doctors a place to communicate without the drug industry listening in.

Under a collaboration to be announced today with Cambridge-based Sermo Inc., Pfizer will work with the fast-growing Web venture and its participating doctors to agree on terms allowing Pfizer's hundreds of staff doctors to view postings and reply.

Rules are to be worked out in online meetings. It's expected any postings by Pfizer's medical staff must be clearly identified as coming from a Pfizer source logging onto the system securely from an office computer, said Daniel Palestrant, Sermo's CEO.

When the service began in September 2006, it was intended as an advertisement-free forum for communication between doctors about topics such as drug side effects - in effect, a sanctuary from the influence of the pharmaceutical industry and its sales staffs.

But recent online polls and focus groups involving Sermo members indicated a clear desire to seek industry participation in a controlled fashion, while continuing to bar ads on the site. The findings led to the collaboration with New York-based Pfizer.

"These doctors are saying, 'We want to have a different type of relationship with the industry,"' said Palestrant, a former surgery resident at a Boston hospital. "Doctors in our focus groups would say, 'In many cases, the most timely and interesting information on drugs comes from the industry. But I want that information on my terms.' "

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